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Mt. Yokoyama doesn’t look like much of a mountain from the summit of Shizu-ga-take above the shores of Lake Yogo in northern Shiga Prefecture.

In fact, you could say the summit plateau is elegant, somewhat graceful when covered in a smooth silky cap of wintry white. From here, in fact, is probably where the name originated, as the mountain does look almost completely horizontal, earning the kanji character yoko (横). Looks can be quite deceptive, as Baku, Tomomi and I found out one winter.

It was Tomomi’s second attempt on the 1132-meter-high peak, after she was forced into a retreat by the chest-high snow drifts in mid-January. We settled in for a late winter assault along the Mitaka-one route which was detailed in a previous blog post.

The preferred route on the mountain is via the Shiratani/Higashi-one loop , a stunning track following a mountain stream past a duet of impressive waterfalls.

This is followed by an easy stroll through a lush beech forest along the summit plateau to Yokoyama’s twin peak Higashi-dake before looping back to the trailhead.

Shiratani route is only done in the green season and, due to time constraints on our climb, we skipped the eastern peak in favor of the faster pisuton descent.

On clear days the summit views of Hakusan are quite impressive but they do involve a bit of work to earn. The western peak, the higher of the two summits, is flanked by a storage shack-cum-emergency-hut and involves a hairy ladder climb to the rooftop observatory.

If you stand on your tiptoes and gaze north, then Hokuriku’s lone alpine summit stands proud and clear. Such views are best appreciated in the late May sunshine, when Hakusan lets down her cloud veil for a brief period before retreating into a summer hibernation amidst the plum rains of June.

Tracks of wild boar, rabbit, stoat, fox, tanuki, and bear are not uncommon in these hardwood swaths of untouched forest. We spent most of the ridge following the tracks of a mother and cub who preferred the broad ridge to the steep gullies lining either side of the long spur.

Access to the trailhead is best done by private transport. This will allow for an early start and will eliminate the need for the infrequent bus connection from Kinomoto station in northern Shiga Prefecture. Using the bus also means an extra 1 hour walk on a paved road just to reach the trailhead.

Lake Yogo and Lake Biwa are clearly visible to the south on days with good visibility. Glimpses of both lakes could be caught between breaks in the clouds, but you’d be much better off just opting for a stable high pressure system to settle over the region. Problem is, such systems are few and far between in these cloud-loving parts of Hokuriku.

 

 

 

 

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Well, I have to admit that I never thought I’d find myself back on the plateau, but after the birth of our daughter Ibuki two solar revolutions ago, it was time to take her to her first Hyakumeizan. What better place to start than our old friend Odai-ga-hara?

Kanako, Ibuki, and I boarded an early morning train to Yamato-kamiichi for the 2-hour bus journey to the trailhead. It being Golden Week, we expected the bus would be a lot more crowded than the dozen or so other passengers, but then again with the automobile-addicted nation at work perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise. As the bus navigated the long switchbacks towards the 1500-meter-high parking lot, we got our first views of the cliffs of Mt. Daifugen, still dabbed with slivers of rotting snowmelt. It was the first time in my 4 visits to the plateau that I’ve ever had an unobstructed view from the skyline road – if there was any reason to doubt the stature of the Omine mountains one would simply need to point their vehicle in this direction.

We arrived just before noon under brilliant blue skies with a smattering of white cloud floating lazily around the upper reaches of the plateau. We dropped off our extra gear at Kokoro-tōjikan hut before heading up the well-worn path through the forest still very much in hibernation mode. The trees had only just begun releasing their spring buds, and the gullies still held onto their winter coats tightly like a stingy old maiden guards her pursestrings. I brought my baby carrier for the journey in case Ibuki did not feel up to the task, but she insisted on climbing the trail under her own power, albeit with a little extra boost from mom and dad’s outstretched hands on the steeper bits. She looked just as comfortable as her parents and has definitely received an unfair portion of Hyakumeizan DNA from her father.

The junction sitting  under the high point of Hide-ga-take was reached just as the first grey clouds marched in from the west. We settled onto the wooden steps overlooking the Pacific Ocean town of Owase and tucked into our home-made lunch boxes. Ibuki had worked up quite the appetite on her slow march towards the summit, and the food provided just the extra boost she needed for the final push up the series of wooden staircases to the summit.

We reached the high point just before 1pm and took a few summit photos before ducking behind the wall of the observation deck that helped shelter us from the strong gales blowing directly across the valley from the Omine range. The sky turned black and we braced ourselves for the first drops of rain. Imagine our surprise when the sky deposited huge wet flakes of snow instead. It was a repeat of our spring trip to Zao except that we had the additional challenge of keeping a 2-year-old from getting hypothermia.

The snow brought the adrenaline, and after tucking Ibuki safely into my baby carrier, we dropped back down to the saddle, where the snow let up completely. Instead of quickly returning to the trail we had come, we headed up an adjacent peak and down through the maze of wooden boardwalks, which brought a smile to Kanako. Her last trip here involved a cold, snowy slog to the high point in subarctic temperatures, where we abandoned any attempt at a traverse and high-tailed it back to the warm confines of the cafe.

The path rose to a summit before dropping through a maze of wooden boardwalks sitting snugly on a broad carpet of bamboo grass and dead trees poking their needle-like heads out of the tuft. The breeze send us scurrying down the wooden steps as the second wave of snow hit us from the west. Ibuki by now had fallen asleep on my back as I used my umbrella to shield her from the wrath of the horizontal snow.

At the first junction we turned right and entered the shelter of the forest, where the snow turned to rain before yielding to weak rays of sunlight that barely penetrated our thick forest canopy. The sun, rain, and snow spent the next 45 minutes battling for control as we reached the parking lot and ducked into the restaurant for lunch.

By the time we checked into the lodge the sun had won the battle and the winds became calm yet cold. The thermometer in our room read minus 1 degrees and we quickly switched on the heat and kept our down jackets zipped tightly. We shuffled off to the bath to thaw out before heading to the dining hall for dinner. This was followed by a short stroll out to the parking lot to check out the stars. The lot was filled to capacity with Golden Week visitors snoring snugly in the warmth of their cars. Parking is free up here and it’s mind-boggling that the prefecture doesn’t charge people for overnight parking.

The next day dawned bright and clear, with a warm spring feel to the air. After breakfast and coffee we hit the trails and headed out to the cliffs of Daijakura but the crowds were immense. It seemed as if every hiker had read the weather forecast and had invaded the mountain like a mass of shoppers searching for bargains. We continued in a counter-clockwise direction past the statue of emperor Jimmu and back to the boardwalks of the previous day. Ibuki had enough walking and quickly fell asleep when put in the baby carrier. The blue skies were a much welcome site and all too rare on this plateau of mist and rain.

We looped back to the hotel and ate lunch before strolling over to the bus stop and the overflowing queue of hikers 100-strong. They had all trekked up from Osugidani gorge in Mie Prefecture and they all wanted to catch the bus that we were planning to take! I’m not sure why the bus company couldn’t simply offer priority boarding to those who stayed in the mountain hut, but it was a free-for-all as any rules of etiquette were quickly abandoned. The bus company asked for volunteers to take the later bus but of course everyone wanted to get back to the city as soon as they possibly could, for most of them had not showered for a few days. By sheer luck we ended up on the bus and got a seat towards the front, where Ibuki took a nap on her mom’s lap.

Odai-ga-hara may be a Hyakumeizan, but it is definitely the kind of place that could use a bit more management and coordination to avoid public transport bottlenecks. Will I return for a 5th visit? It remains to be seen, but there always the chance of a much longer traverse along the spine of the Daiko mountains, which either begins or ends here depending on your directional preference.

 

Tsuruga is your typical sleepy port town nestled in a quiet bay in southern Fukui Prefecture. Most visitors pass through on their way to Kanazawa, or perhaps kill time at the ferry terminal awaiting their transport to Tomakomai in Hokkaido. Mountaineers, on the other hand, should know that the city is home to a triumvirate of peaks known as the Tsuruga Sanzan: Mt. Saihō, Mt. Nosaka, and Mt. Iwagomori.

Nosaka is the obvious choice for winter mountaineers, thanks to the support of a fervent local who climbs and blogs about the mountain nearly every day of the year. With such up-to-date information at hand, you can not only get a real time update of the current snowpack, but you can also rest assured that you’ll always have a trace to follow through the knee-deep powder.

Paul, Rie, and I met at Tsuruga station around half past seven on a cloudy January morning. They had driven up from Nagoya while I caught the first train from Osaka. The weather looked iffy, with a low-pressure system set to move in from noon onwards, but if we waited for the perfect weather every time we set out we’d almost never go hiking, especially not in the Hokuriku Region with its propensity to attract mist and precipitation.

The trailhead parking lot was full of cars, as other locals had apparently not been scared off by the forecast. The march up the track followed a stream before crossing it via a steel staircase that is erected in the winter months. Here we strapped on the crampons and marched up towards the ridge line. With the large snowpack, we could pretty much channel our own route up the mountain, which Paul did at regular intervals for an added aerobic workout.

Despite the steepening grade, we made good progress and before long we had reached the first peak on the ridge, fittingly named Ichi-no-dake. The mountains to the east were swallowed in cloud, robbing us of a view of Hakusan and the Japan Alps, but the summit of Nosaka was still above the clouds, giving us an incentive to keep on the move.

Stopping only to polish off the lenses, the three of us coasted gracefully over the 2nd peak and up through the steepened slopes of beech towards the final summit plateau. On a saddle below the top, a descending hiker warned us that the door of the emergency hut was broken and that we’d have to find another way into the hut. Not knowing the full meaning, we pushed on to the hut, only to find another hiking group removing the rear window of the shelter! Breaking and entering is generally frowned upon, but not when it meant a dry place to sit and eat lunch.

We had the summit to ourselves, as other trekkers milled about in front of the hut and ate their frozen supplies. Each of us taking turns to pose, it was Paul’s steps out to  the west that revealed the waist-deep snow drift that now graces the header on the January entry to the 2018 calendar.

We easily could have spent the rest of the day up here admiring the scenery if not for the brisk gales that were pushing the low pressure system over the massif. We ducked through the open window and into the relatively warm confines of the emergency hut.

The return to the car was relatively uneventful except for our failed attempt to slide down the steeper slopes on our rear ends. I ended up with a bucketful of snow up under my jacket and a drenched bottom due to the wet nature of the snowpack.

Back at the car, we ducked into a family restaurant just as a strong rain shower moved in over Tsuruga. Paul ordered a cheese in hamburg set and had to send it back after they forgot to put the cheese inside. It’s only a matter of time before these chain establishments replace their servers with tablet computers, where orders will be less likely to be mistaken.

All in all, Nosaka is one of Kansai’s best snow hikes, especially if you can time it with a high pressure system and the million dollar views of Hakusan. One day I hope to traverse the ridge over to Akasaka and the Makino highlands, where I just may continue along the Takashima Trail for a few days. If that happens, I’ll be sure to call on Rie and Paul and anyone else who’s up for an adventure in the wild mountains of Fukui.

A gem awaits those that trample these hidden meadows above Wakasa village in western Fukui Prefecture.

The summit plateau is carpeted in a golden shag of grasslands stretching along the ridge for several kilometers, the perfect place for nature photographers to capture hikers strolling along the park-like promenade.

Unobstructed vistas of the mountains of northern Kyoto Prefecture dominate the southwestern horizon, while the quintet of freshwater lakes near Sekumi Bay sit idle by the seaside like a group of discarded Rorschach inkblots.

The photo chosen for the calendar came out a bit underexposed, likely due to the diffused late afternoon light and a bit of an oversight with my computer monitor: a lot of images appear fine on the computer screen but come out differently in printed form.

This darkened quality, however, does give a mysterious air akin to an overcast day that dominates the weather patterns over the Hokuriku region this time of year.

In terms of origins of the mountain’s name, one theory is that the wood used to build Sanjūsangen temple in Kyoto was taken from trees felled on these very slopes. Since the temple was built in the 12th century, it is quite impossible to bear truth to such theories, but the strand of virgin beech trees lining the upper slopes below the ridge provide a glimpse of what the ancient forests used to look like until the invasion of the cedar kings.

The hike to the summit takes a couple of hours, with relatively easy access by car from Kyoto city. On an exceptionally clear day, Hakusan would be clearly visible on the horizon if not for Mt. Sanjo cutting off the vistas to the east.

In order to provide full disclosure, it must be noted that the images captured here were taken on a chilly day in mid-April, where the scenery still retains the bleak hues of winter. Caught off guard by the sudden drop in temperatures, the three of us raced off the summit in search of the warmer comforts of the sakura-draped foothills below.

 

The Gathering VI

Another autumn had arrived, almost as swiftly as the one that felt like it had just passed. The meant another meeting of the mountaineering minds in the form of our annual gathering. I think it was Paul who had mentioned Hakuba as a possible place for our rotating event, and with the Banff Mountain Film Festival passing through the area in late September, it seemed like a natural match.

Rie, Paul, Hisao and I all met in Nagoya for the 3-1/2 hour drive to Lake Aoki on the southern edge of the ski mecca of Hakuba. With Rie behind the wheel, it was a delightful drive fueled by the intense competition of our 4-way Name that Tune battle. Paul connected his phone to the car stereo and set thematic playlists on random while we all fought for the envious title of champion. The rules were simple: 1 point each for the Artist and the Song Title, followed by an extra point if you could name the movie in which it appeared. Points could be split between several people, and the first person to reach 25 points was crowned winner. We kick off the proceedings with the 80s, with Paul and I neck-and-neck to the very end. He won by just a point while we moved onto the 70s and 90s, where I was schooled pretty heavily.

Upon reaching the lakeside campground in the mid-afteroon, we were delighted to see that Naresh, Bjorn, Miguel, and Eri had already settled into camp. Miguel brought along his inflatable kayak along with a separate blow-up sofa that we all took turns inadvertently bouncing off of. In a move rarely seen in the past 5 gatherings, I set to work in the kitchen, cooking up some chicken and pasta that left the others flabbergasted. Usually in my role of host, I somehow manage to slip away during the busy prep work of dinner, but here I was taking the lead and actually serving other people for once. I have to admit that I wanted to get everyone stuffed and satisfied before we headed up to Iwatake ski resort for the main event. Miguel’s homemade moussaka was a big hit to say the list, and served as a delectable delicacy for our humbled minds and curious stomachs. Meanwhile, Viviana’s video chat from Austria made us feel nostalgic for the old days when she was stilling based here in Japan. Shortly after, we all gathered in front of Michal’s memorial tarp for group photo antics.

As the sun receded towards the horizon, we bought firewood and rented a foldable stove and waited to see if Ed would arrive in time for the film festival. He was running a bit behind schedule, so he agreed to meet us at the campsite afterwards as the 7 of us crammed into Naresh’s minivan for the 20-minute ride to the Banff Mountain Film Festival. This annual film festival tours the world, and every year reaches Japan’s shores in the busy autumn season. However, there is usually only one outdoor showing in Japan, with the other dozen or so viewings relegated to a stuffy indoor theater. It seems silly to watch mountaineering films in the warm comforts of the theater instead of natural surroundings in the open air, which is why we all decided to descend onto the dew-covered slopes of Iwatake. The pre-show festivities were already in full swing upon arrival, with a live DJ spinning some smooth house tunes and a half dozen food and beverage vendors spread out in front of the ski lodge. A slackline even made a guest appearance as Paul rubbed elbows with a few school children who were using the contraption as a makeshift trampoline.

The festival started promptly, and upon entry we were all presented a free gift from the masters of headgear over at Buff, the main sponsor of the event. We all received different designs, with the lucky ones the recipient of a 100% merino wool head wrap, which retails for just over 5000 yen. Considering that entry to the festival is only 1500 yen, we all considered ourselves ahead of the game, even for us unlucky few that were given 100% cotton head garments in lieu of the high-quality sheep hair. A drone flew over the crowd to shoot a promotional video for Buff, and we were all encouraged to show off our gifts.

55 Hours in Mexico, a short film created by Outdoor Research, kicked off the festival documenting a weekend assault of Mexico’s Orizaba, the third highest mountain in North America . That was followed up by Doing it Scared, an inspirational tale of a British climber overcoming a disability to tackle a spire that was the cause of his crippling accident. When We Were Knights, the tragic story of a fallen wingsuit diver, brought tears to everyone’s eyes while Young Guns showed off two teenage prodigies that are now treading new ground in the realm of Sport Climbing. After a brief intermission, the second half of the festival commenced with Danny MacAskill showing us all that anything is possible and impossible on a mountain bike. Next up came a backcountry ski mission to Alaska where a handful of gravity defiers swooped down near-vertical walls of powder snow to the gasps and yelps of the snow-hungry locals here in Hakuba. The evening ended with the Reel Rock classic A Line Across the Sky following Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold’s traverse of the Fitzroy massif in Patagonia. By the time the show was finished, our jaws were sore from having them hanging nonstop in gaped misbelief while watching the truly inspiring footage.

Once back at camp, we set up the campfire and told stories until well past our bedtime. We brought Michal’s photo over from his memorial tarp that we had erected in the campsite. This tarp was given to me by his widow and I vowed to carry on his memory for as long as we continue to hold these annual gatherings. Ed fired up his drone to show us the horsepower but we held off on the surveillance footage for the time being.

 

The next morning dawned bright and clear, with pleasant early-autumn skies. After a brief visit down to the lakeshore to catch up with Justin, we spend most of the morning trying to finish our leftover food between turns in the kayak. Miguel’s moussaka and Bjorn’s pancakes kept our stomachs filled to capacity, with sips of coffee and chai thrown in for good measure. Paul tried very hard into coaxing me into a climb to Yari onsen, but I just wasn’t feeling up for it. The weeks of exhaustion from climbing four major peaks in the Minami Alps had caught up with me, and I needed a proper rest to fully recover. Regretfully, I had to turn down the very tempting offer to accompany him and we all ended up heading back to Nagoya, but not before stopping off at an onsen and indulging on the Kurobe dam curry. We also had a rematch of Name That Tune, with songs from the 50s that I had once again lost by mixing up Elvis and the Beatles and calling the new group ‘Beavis’. Miguel and Eri headed back to Kobe, Naresh back to Tokyo, Ed on his way to Ueda, and before we knew it another gathering had come to an end, but not before some obligatory lakeside drone photos.

 

This year’s gathering was very small compared to the ones in the past. It’s a tough call: have it in a touristy place such as Kamikochi and several dozen will show up, but host it in a far-off place that you need to go out of your way to find and only the most dedicated and hardcore attend. I think I know which one I prefer.

 

 

The Calendar Footage

Now that the official Hiking in Japan wall calendar has been released, I’m starting a new monthly series on the Tozan Tales about each mountain that made the final cut. Those in possession of the calendar can get some interesting ‘behind the scenes’ footage while learning more about some of Japan’s lesser-known summits. There’s still time to procure one if you’re looking for a great holiday gift. An added bonus is that you can start using the calendar immediately, since the first month is December 2017.

Hyonosen Chapter 2 – Decade

My first trip to Hyonosen was intended as a post-op test of my cardiac recovery and ended up being a fierce battle with rotting snow. I had certainly taken on more than I could handle and was lucky to walk away without incident. I had always wanted to revisit the mountain in the green season but had been preoccupied with other mountains. However, the timing just seemed right for a second look, especially since it has been exactly 10 years since I had my leaky aortic valve replaced. And what better place to test out the ticker than on my first post-op mountain.

The weather reports had certainly looked iffy all week, but late Friday evening Paul M. and I cemented our plans. I hopped on the 6:30am train to Kobe and we were on the road by 8am after having stopped by a local bakery for some trail delicacies and a hot cup of coffee as a kickstarter. The clouds hung heavy over the mountains of northern Hyogo but the rain held off on the 2-hour drive to the start of the hike. Due to the thin blanket of high-altitude altostratus cloud, visibility was surprisingly good as the cooler temperatures kept the lower clouds away. Our original plan was to park at Shinsui-koen but the forest road was blockaded, forcing us into an extra 1km walk on foot. We loaded up the gear, our eyes fixated on the autumn colors plastered to the ridgeline like the canvas of an Impressionist master.

It’s amazing how differently the scenery can look when not buried under a meter of snow. Instead of climbing a near-vertical bluff on my left, the summer trail dropped to a stream and followed alongside to a 65-meter high waterfall, which must have surely been swollen with snowmelt during my first trip. The path entered a forest and switchbacked a staggering 38 times if you can trust the person who named this section of path ‘the hill of 38 turns’. Instead of counting, Paul and I kept our brows raised to both the towering summit ridge and the verdant canopy of beech sheltering us from the brisk winds of autumn.

The trail soon left the spur and dropped to a small section of planted cedar to the west. A corrugated-metal shack housed a trio of ageing jizō statues that were probably expecting a better abode. The shelter would make for a miserable place to wait out a rain storm, but with the weather gods on our side, we slid past the entrance and through the stagnant strands of cedar until dropping to a mountain stream. This was the trickiest section of my spring traverse, as the snow drifts created a crevice fit for one of Denali’s slopes. I managed to ford this fearsome sliver of sawa with a brave leap over the abyss, but this time around the route has been desecrated by a set of steel ladders. The erosion here is quite impressive, and no doubt the metal links have helped limit the damage to the increasing numbers of visitors to Hyogo’s highest summit.

After crossing the stream, the trail once again climbed up towards the ridge above our craned necks. Forest of beech reigned supreme in these untouched swaths of virgin forest as the colors were just beginning their shift to golden hues. We had just breached the 1000 meter mark but continued to push on all the way to the ridge before settling down for a break. It was an exact repeat of my first foray except back in 2007 I was incredibly pushed for time. This time Paul M. and I were pushing on just to reach the peak of the autumn colors sitting snugly on the ridge.

And on the ridge we did reach, settling down onto a bench in front of the emergency hut. The winds from the flatlands of Tottori Prefecture pushed up and over the northern face of the massif, sending us both rummaging through our kit in search of additional layers. I broke out the lightly salted crisps and a package of cashews and we rehydrated for the final stroll along the ridge. A decade before, progress ground to a crawl as every advancing step with met with the unmistakable thunk of postholing up to my thighs. Now, the only obstacle was tripping over the exposed tree roots of the massive beech trees holding down fort.

Beech leaves turn a golden yellow in the autumn, but against the diffuse grey skies they took on an amber tint that harkened the commencement of winter. Paul M. and I pushed on under the glistening fortress of wind-battered trees, fenced in on the Hyogo side of the ridge by head-high tufts of bamboo grass that concealed the splendid vistas across the narrow valley to the ski slopes of Hachibuse. Every now and again,  the bald ski runs poked out beneath gaps in the undergrowth, flanked on both sides by foreshortened ridges of pale blue floating high above an ethereal carpet of thin autumn cloud. The trail rose to the summit of a short rise before sinking to a col at the face of Koshiki Slab, a bulbous mass of igneous rock sticking out on the ridge like a giant vat for which it is named. In the cool April air, I followed the snow drifts halfway up the monster before resorting to the chains affixed to the near-vertical face. Here in the dry season a faint trail led up to a narrow ledge overlooking a patchwork of foliage spread out below.

A lunge here would see me at the top of the crag, but streams of water clung stubbornly to the face, and a slip here would involve a bone-breaking tumble back to the saddle. Having just finished reading the latest Accident Report from the American Alpine Journal, I halted my vertical ascent in favor of the easy summer detour to the east of the rocks. I dropped back to the col and traversed around, following an array of wooden steps as I sped to catch up with Paul M., who was not interested in playing any Spiderman games.

We reached the summit as a tour group was just setting off on their descent. Hot noodles were soon boiled as we scanned the horizon for familiar names: Mt. Rokko and Mt. Daisen were both clearly visible in the crisp autumn air as an array of other Kinki and Kansai 100 peaks sought out our attention. The head-high bamboo grass made identification a bit tricky, but a quick ascent of the vertical ladder affixed to the emergency hut did wonders for the views but not much for the vertigo.

Refreshed and refueled, the cool southerly winds pushing off the coast forced us down the scenic lee slopes of the eastern ridge, where a standing army of ancient cedars looked down on our awkward footfalls through the muddy minefield of loose stones that spit us out at the Kobe University mountain hut. The porch made for the perfect rest stop for a fresh brew of steaming coffee and calorie-rich brownies.

The trail left the protection of the bamboo grass and skirted a narrow ridge of hardwoods carpeted in leaf litter. Sunshine poked through gaps in the cloud cover as we dropped below the foliage line and into greener fields again. Dense pockets of planted cedar dropped sharply to our left, terminating at the slopes of the ski resort hidden behind the wall of evergreen needles. We reached another mountain hut further along the ridge and paused briefly before marching through the walls of cedar to the forest road. Here it was a simple walk along the asphalt back to the car. Sections of the route afforded views back up to the ridge line, which were now smothered in late afternoon cloud. The rain front would certainly be here before nightfall, so better to head to the sheltered comforts of the hot springs.

A decade on, the heart still ticks on as strong as ever. Aside from a few skipped beats and the extremely rare palpitation or two, you would be hard pressed to ever know that I’ve been under the knife. Of course, one would only need to put their ear near my chest to hear the tick-tock rhythms of the titanium ticker at work. Here’s two another decade of successful ascents and heart-throbbing tales.

 

I place part of the blame on William Banff. My fellow Meizanologist introduced me to the Kin-Kan 134 through his excellent blog On Higher Ground. Before his insightful writing, I had never known there were two different Hyakumeizan lists for the Kansai Region. I picked up a copy of Yama-to-Keikoku’s Kansai Hyakumeizan Guidebook when it was released back in 2010 and spent the next 5 years knocking them off one by one. On the summit of Mt. Hiyamizu in October of 2015, I thought I could put those peakbagging days behind me and start to focus on raising a family. Then I found out that there was an older list of Kinki Hyakumeizan compiled by Kinki Mountaineering leader Ichiro Masa and published by Shin-hiking Publishing back in 1993. I guess that Meizan lists are not copyrighted, however, because Yama-to-keikou simply took this list, and swapped out 32 of the harder mountains in favor of ones with easier access, which means there are now two parallel lists with a combined number of 132 separate peaks.

When hiking on Mt. Saiho with William a few years ago I honestly had no intention of attempting those extra 32 peaks. I filed them away as too difficult and too remote and wanted to simply go on hikes that looked great from the handful of other guidebooks in my collection. However, the wonderful weather and spectacular views on Mt. Saiho infected me with the Kinki-Hyaku bug and I set off in search of those elusive mountains. I felt like a kid who, when taking a bite from a potato chip, decided that just one more bite would do until the entire bag of chips was gone.

There are no guidebooks about the Kinki Hyakumeizan, so I had to scour the blogosphere for trail information. It took nearly 3 years to reach my 99th (erm, 31st) peak, when one last formidable foe remained – good ole’ Nakahachinin, a grueling 8-hour hike no matter which approach you take. Definitely worth saving until the end.

The best approach seemed to be from the Omine mountains, as the Hachinin range sits on a perpendicular ridge within apparent striking distance. Nao navigated the tight curves of route 169 as I studied the map with an eager eye and kept the other eye out for familiar landmarks. The sky was relatively clear for the first section south from Yoshino and out the left-hand window I could clearly see the lofty tops of Mt. Shirahige, a mountain that had given us so much grief just 10 months ago. The sky darkened, however, the closer we got to Ikehara Reservoir and drops of rain dotted the windshield as we sought cover in the restaurant at Shimokitayama Onsen. Just last night the weather reporters were raving about the fantastic akibare weather settled over the main island. Apparently these NHK folks have never visited the innards of Nara Prefecture.

From Ikehara it was a lonely drive on a winding forest road that would actually take us to the Omine ridgeline if not for the metal gate strewn across the asphalt. We parked and shouldered our gear under the soft sounds of the falling rain. The road had definitely seen better days as we spent the majority of the time dodging rockfall and counting up the kilometers to the ridge. It was a brisk climb of 5km, which took a little over an hour to reach the Okugakemichi and the evening’s accommodation at Jikyo-no-shuku. The unmanned mountain hut was recently renovated in 2015 and provided the perfect base camp for the impending climb. We were basically alone, apart from a huntsman spider and a mountain leech that had somehow caught a ride with us along the mountain road. I’m not sure how neither of us managed to avoid a bite but by the sluggishness of the leech the cooler weather of autumn had zapped all of its strength. We tossed it out the window and settled in for a long night.

I spend most of the night in and out of consciousness, consumed by the uneasiness of the long hike ahead. The trail on the map was dotted, meaning that is not well maintained, and the ‘bush’ comments alongside sections of the route were concerning. I did not want a repeat of our debacle on the ridge of Mt. Mikuni . Breakfast was prepared under the brightening sky that held the promise of a good day. The overnight rain brought in the cloud, so we awoke to a blanket of thick condensation that had just started to burn off as we hit the trail. Excess gear was stowed away safely in the hut as we shouldered rations and water for the long slog in front of us. The path wasted no time in gaining 150 meters of vertical to the summit of Asukaridake, where the trail immediately lost those gains in height off the northern face. After dropping to a col and scaling a rock face embedded with chain, the two of us popped out on the summit of Shōjōmurodake at a marked junction for Hachininyama.

We left the main trail and headed west along a broad ridge without the slightest hint of human encroachment. It was like taking a step back in time, and the thick fog gave off an air of enchantment that are missing from the mountains of Kansai. It took about 40 minutes to reach the summit of Peak 1340 – you know you’re in a remote part of Japan when even the summits are lacking names. A little further along ,the ridge split, so we consulted with our maps, the compass, and the GPS to check our bearings. In clear weather we’d be able to see our target peak but the sun had not yet breached the walls of our fortress of fog.

Our route dropped steeply, startling a giant toad out of its slumber as we broke down below the cloud and finally got a visual bearing to confirm what the compass had told us. We surmised that the peak towering just out of reach in front of us was Mt. Oku-hachinin, a place that the map had indicated would take over 90 minutes to reach. We went straight to work and dropped down to a broad saddle punctuated at irregular intervals by tape marks affixed to the trees. There was really only one ridge to follow and we knew that as long as the weather cooperated we’d be heading in the right direction. The vistas to the northwest opened up but the peaks of Mt. Shaka and Kasasute still lay trapped in dark cloud.

The summit of Oku-hachinin was eventually reached as we paused to catch our breath and consult with the map. It was now 8:30 in the morning and we had been on the go since 6am. So far our pace had been faster than the map times and I attribute this to Nao, who had warned of approaching rain cloud in the early afternoon. I think part of my rush was also the fact that this was the magic #100, so I was full of adrenaline. From our perch on Oku-hachinin we could see the summit of Nakahachinin rising gracefully above us with a deep saddle that cut off easy access.

We dropped to the saddle and braced for the long, steep, and dare I say relentless climb. The contours lines were bunched together as we fought gravity’s resistance by following game trails in conjunction with our own improvised switchbacks. The blue sky sat on the horizon so I quickened the pace only to arrive at a false summit on the edge of a deep precipice. I skirted the edge of the sickening drop and picked my way along the serrated edge of the ridge before pushing up the final 50 meters of altitude.

Nao and I reached the summit of Nakahachnin at around 9:15am on the 10th of September, 2017. I could now close the chapter on the Kinki Hyakumeizan and move onto other projects. Well, not quite – we still had to get off this bloody mountain.

We rested on the tree-covered summit and ate our rations. To the west sat the summit of Nishi-hachinin, an army of freshly-planted cedar trees lined the col as I cursed the forestry service for desecrating yet another tract of virgin forest in the name of public works. Future hikers are advised to bring a chainsaw to help clear the seedlings before they grow too tall. To the south, the top of Minami-hachinin peeked out between a gap in the trees. Sitting just 5 meters higher, it’s a 20-minute round-trip that some purists say is the true target since it is the highest of Hachinin’s five summits. Nao and I thought about the long return trip ahead of us and came up with the following logic: if the Kinki Hyakumeizan architects had intended Minami-hachnin to the be target peak they would have stated so instead of putting Naka-hachinin on their list. The beauty of the place does warrant a future visit though. After all, someone needs to come back to clear all the cedar away.

We left the summit for the long march back to Jikyo-no-shuku hut. I would have preferred a leisurely stroll and our progress ground to a crawl on the long ascent back to Peak 1340 – we were running on fumes and dripping with well-earned sweat. By the time we reached the hut it was already after noon. We collapsed on the carpet interior and set about preparing lunch. Fortunately I had brought along some pasta and cooked up a feast while Nao prepared the fresh coffee. The clouds had once again rolled in but luckily the rain held off until we had safely arrived back at the car.

So the million yen question now arises: what do I do next? I still need to finish climbing the highest mountain in every prefecture, and with just 4 mountains left, it’s a pretty attainable target. In the bookstore yesterday I stumbled across a guidebook for the Hyakuteizan (百低山), the 100 Low Mountains of Japan. Now that does sound tempting indeed. These tozan tales are far from over my friends……

 

I’ve always avoided climbing Mitsutōge. Sure it’s steeped in history and tradition, but I just couldn’t overlook the TV antenna flanking two of the mountain’s three sacred peaks. During my last trip to Kawaguchiko, I opted for neighboring Kurodake, a higher flank and one of the 300 famous mountains. The vistas across the lake to the northern face of Japan’s highest mountain were tranquil if not inspiring, as few hikers visit its tree-lined heights. Mitsutōge, on the other hand, is crawling with visitors no matter the time of year nor the weather. A quick on-line search revealed a plethora of English-language blog posts and trail notes, coming in second to Mt. Fuji itself. Yes, the peak would remain off my Hiking in Japan site, but perhaps, I reasoned, it was still worthy of a quick exploration.

I arrived at Kawaguchiko station by bus from Matsumoto, and immediately swam through the sea of crowds to the coin lockers tucked away on the western side of the station. It took quite some time to sort through the kit and repack, and after a short trip to the restroom to deposit a load of a different kind, I scooted over to the bus information counter to inquire about the next bus to the trailhead. “The final bus just left”, came the response from the weather-beaten brows of the bored attendant, obviously worn down from the constant inquiries of visitors looking for the tourist information counter. I was counting on the 10:35am bus to the trailhead, but I was informed that this bus only ran on weekends. Dejected but still determined, I popped into the 7-11 to stock up on lunch. The clerk was particularly inquisitive yet relieved when I told her that Mt. Fuji was not my intended destination.

Back at the station, I easily hailed a taxi for the 5000 yen ride to the start of the hike. After passing by a troupe of foraging monkeys, the driver eased the vehicle along the exposed shoulder that followed the narrow mountain stream, depositing me at a large pile of snow piled up at the unmarked bus stop. I bade my chauffeur farewell and stared up at the ice-covered forest road directly in front of me. I took a sip from the water bottle before strapping on the 4-point crampons, whose spikes easily bit into the hard ice. This deserted road led me higher towards the western flank of the mountain, terminating at a small car park sparkling with a clean restroom.

From here, the trail lay buried under 50 centimeters of fresh snowfall. The crampons did little other than to serve as a depository for dense, wet snowfall, and after every third step I had to kick my feet together to dislodge the burdensome clumps of white clay. Still, it was better than having to sit down on the moist snow to unbuckle the crampons, so I held out until a bit higher on the slopes, where the snow conditions improved under the cool winds. I soon passed by a party of four sporting blue jeans and sneakers. I kicked steps past them as they looked on with an air of envy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years of spring hikes in Japan, it’s to expect the unexpected and always carry the 4-pointers.

The wide path, which I am pretty sure doubles as a gravel highway in the summer, switchbacked through the sleeping forest towards the summit plateau. The going was easy as I simply followed the other footprints from like-minded mid-week summiters. An unmarked jeep sat on the shoulder of this path, buried up to its neck in wind-blown drifts. Perhaps the hut owner uses this mode of transport in the green season? Another jeep lay parked a bit further up the path, where a signpost led the way to Mitsutōge-Sansō, which I reached just a few minutes later. It was high noon and time for a snack. I settled into a bench that had luckily been swept free of snow and peered across the steep valley towards the puffs of cumulus that held Mt. Fuji in its grasp. Oh well, so much for the views of Fuji that draw thousands of climbers throughout the year.

After a quick bite, I dropped down to a saddle and up to Mt. Kinashi (木無山), the first of the trio of peaks. It was little other than a knob on the ridge, but after a bit of scrambling, I accessed the bluffs on the eastern side of the peak and took in this splendid vista:

Crowds were beginning to converge from all directions as I retraced the route back to the hut and along the ridge to a second hut and junction down to Mitsutoge station. The second, and highest of Mitsutoge’s triumvirate is a knobby knuckle by the name of Kaiun, reachable on a series of half-buried wooden steps. The summit signposts indicated that this was indeed Mitsutoge mountain. a huge disservice to a peak that literally means ‘good fortune’. Despite being usurped of a name, the weather did bring me the good fortune of viewing the entire chain of the Minami Alps clothed in a wintry white which was a pleasant consolation prize for not being able to see Fuji.

Sharing a mountaintop with twenty of my closest strangers does not rank high on my fulfilment list, so I dropped down the northern side of the summit, past a towering antenna, and down through the forest to an unmarked junction. My feet led me further to the north to the final summit Takanosu, literally ‘the hawk’s nest’. The mountain was impossible to miss, thanks to the virtual city of TV antenna that would make for a great place to bring up some hawk offspring if not for the electromagnetic waves. The summit was not only deserted of people, but severely lacking in summit signposts as well. Perhaps they were buried under the foot of snow blanketing the top.

Satisfied, yet hardly done, I looped back around to the junction below Kaiun and dropped steeply down a flight of slippery wooden stairs. The path dropped to a saddle and then, by complete surprise, turned left and traversed directly under the cliffs of Byobu-iwa that make Kaiun such a mecca for Kanto-based rock climbers. Though no spidermen were visible on this outing, the line of pitons fastened to the rock face suggest that the belay times on weekends must rival those of the queue at Space Mountain, but this is not a hypothesis I would even want to prove. The only rock climbing you’ll see me do is when I’m forced to do so, on the near-vertical routes in the Japan Alps, where fixed chains and ladders make the going easier.

As the path dropped lower, I took off the crampons and coasted past a series of Buddhist statues to a mountain pass adorned with stone Jizō. From here, it was a snow-free tramp through the darkened forest until popping back out on the pavement, where it was a dreadful walk of about an hour on the asphalt jungle. As soon as I arrived at the station, the skies opened up in one of those familiar spring downpours. This rain continued overnight and changed to snow, so when I woke up the following morning in Kawaguchiko, it was a winter wonderland. I wandered the sleeping streets before dawn in search of a nice place to capture the morning light on the cone.

Although I doubt I will visit again, it was good to have marked the mountain off the list. The peaks surrounding lake Saiko look worthy of further investigating, a chance that I hope to seize in the more comfortable green season.

 

 

 

A Weekend in Mie part 2

The drive to Owase, a small fishing village nestled on the Pacific coast of southern Mie Prefecture, took several hours and we coasted into our business hotel just as dusk settled on the sleepy town. After check-in, we walked the quiet, narrow streets and ducked into a seafood restaurant with some interesting choices on the menu. In this part of the Kii Peninsula, they eat everything that can be caught in the sea, including the vulnerable ocean sunfish. We each ordered a dinner set featuring a sea creature neither of us had heard of. The set came with a entire fish simmered in a dark broth accompanied by miso soup, rice, and a couple of other side dishes. The hotel was a bare bones affair, located atop a convenience store, but it did have the added bonus of a western style breakfast included in the price. The next morning, we took full advantage in the top floor restaurant affording views of Mt. Takamine, our goal for the morning. Owase sits directly in the middle of the Ise-Hongu section of the Kumano Kodo, and would make for a worthwhile stopover for trekkers making the walk connecting two of Japan’s holiest sights.

Mt. Takamine has two main approaches, both of which entail a large amount of walking on concrete. Nao and I opted for the forest road from the north along route 425, which we reached after some careful navigating on the narrow road. We parked at the terminus of a long tunnel and followed the sign as it led us along the abandoned pavement towards the trailhead. The route was fortified with cedar trees bursting with fresh pollen emissions, which set off the histamine alarms and put the nasal cavities into full production. We both suffer horrendously from the seasonal pollen, thanks in large part to our prolific mountain quests that have put us over the threshold of sensitivity. There was nothing to do but to move swiftly up the road and hope for favorable winds blowing in from the Pacific.

It was a 5-km walk along the road, which wound past a waterfall and areas of rockfall before terminating just below the ridgeline. We entered the cedar forest and, after passing by a bear trap, arrived at a junction where the southern trail merged into one main route for the summit. It was here that we left the evergreen mess behind and rose into a stupendous forest of old grown hardwoods that had shed their summer coat for the season. The path climbed along the exposed ridge, the gradient rising with each advancing step. Soon enough, we reached the summit plateau, which afforded some of the best views that Kansai has to offer.

The broad summit rocks overlook the eastern aspects of both the Omine and Daiko mountain ranges. In fact, this is one of the few places in Kansai where you can view two Hyakumeizan lined up side-by-side. On our right, Odaigahara rises majestically to its knightly plateau, all but free of snowfall despite its 1500 meter height. To the left, the Omine mountains, weighing in just under 2000 meters in height, lay painted with a thin layer of wintry white which brought the mountains of Nagano to mind.

The views did not stop there, however. After climbing a boulder just behind the high point, we could peer back down to the coast towards Owase village. It was one of the best Kinki mountains so far, and with such splendid weather and lack of visitors, it was hard to tear ourselves away.

Eventually we did slither back to the forest road and retraced our steps to the awaiting car. On the ride back to Osaka, we discussed the remaining mountains on the list. While I had thought that Takamine was mountain #98, I learned to my regret that I had failed to count one other peak, so there were still a trio of mountains left. Still, three mountains could easily be conquered before the end of the year, an attainable goal if I set my sights on it.